The Myth of North Korean Socialism: How Pyongyang’s Profiteers Fooled the World

Over this long weekend, I’ve been reading Brian R. Myers’s new book, “North Korea’s Juche Myth,” a copy of which Prof. Myers was kind enough to send. Myers argues that juche, that cryptic ideology reporters often mention but never explain, is a sham ideology that is both overblown and seldom understood, by foreigners as well as North Koreans. Very roughly translated, juche means that man must be the master of his own destiny (in contrast to North Korea’s reality, in which individuality is uniquely suppressed). Myers argues that juche is a loanword from the Japanese zhuti, first seen in an 1887 Japanese discussion of Kant, and became a term of common usage in both Koreas. Pyongyang built the Juche Myth to give Kim Il-Sung ideological gravitas, and to decoy naive foreigners away from its real — and more implacable — ideology of racism, nationalism, and xenophobia, which Myers described in “The Cleanest Race.” (You can hear Myers explain his argument here, in an interview with Chad O’Carroll.) Myers argues that Pyongyang maintains this duality (triality?) by code-switching between its foreign propaganda, its propaganda for its elites, and its propaganda for its underprivileged classes. (As we have seen.)

I’m not prepared to declare myself convinced of the entire argument before I finish the book, but I’m already mulling my own companion volume: “North Korea’s Socialist Myth.” The thesis of this book (or rather, this post) will be that Pyongyang’s claims of socialism are a sham, meant to lure naive or self-serving foreigners with more money than good sense, with a mirage that its profiteering represents progress toward ever-receding reforms. In recent years, that mirage has gained Pyongyang $7 billion dollars in South Korean aid, perhaps billions more from other gullible investors, and probably billions in sanctions relief from those who did not want to interfere with these phantom reforms.

By feigning socialism, Pyongyang also gains a small, fanatical, and almost influential following of apologists on the far left — apologists who are themselves willing to overlook not only its gross inequality, but also its racism (Barack Obama: “a wicked black monkey … an ugly sub-human … suitable to live among a troop of monkeys in the world’s largest African animal park, licking at the crumbs tossed by onlookers“), its homophobia (Michael Kirby: “a disgusting old lecher with 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality”), its misogyny (Park Geun-Hye: “a whore [who] lifts her skirt to lure strangers“), its acts of war, its crimes against humanity, and the violence of their own allies.

Socialist ideology also justifies the economic totalitarianism by which Pyongyang prevents its subjects from achieving economic independence, and the other forms of independence (of thought, of movement, from want, from fear) that would inevitably follow. Socialism is not something that Pyongyang practices, it’s something that Pyongyang imposes on the weak and vulnerable. Its real economic policy is — and has long been — unrestrained state capitalism,* shielded by deceptive financial practices, and revealed only when its agents are caught carrying it out. Which is often, for those who are paying attention. (* See comments.)

Pyongyang has long been a profiteer from the un-socialist vices of gambling (both online and in pachinko parlors), narcotics smuggling, slaverymoney laundering, cigarette smuggling, currency counterfeiting, gold smuggling, pharmaceutical counterfeiting, the trade in endangered species, and even prostitution. For decades, it has permitted as much capitalism as necessary to maintain its elites, its security forces, and its weapons programs, but never enough to allow meaningful interaction between foreign ideas and non-elite North Koreans. The long-predicted penetration of capitalism into North Korean society did happen — not because the regime accepted reforms, but despite Pyongyang’s best efforts to suppress it. (Since the succession of Kim Jong-Un, once touted as a Swiss-educated reformer, the regime has made significant progress toward stanching the flow of goods and information into the peoples’ economy.)

Pyongyang’s controlled isolation was not a difficult thing to foresee, for those who read Nicholas Eberstadt’s quotations of past North Korean policy pronouncements. A sample:

It is the imperialist’s old trick to carry out ideological and cultural infiltration prior to their launching of an aggression openly. Their bourgeois ideology and culture are reactionary toxins to paralyze people’s ideological consciousness. Through such infiltration, they try to paralyze the independent consciousness of other nations and make them spineless. At the same time, they work to create illusions about capitalism and promote lifestyles among them based on the law of the jungle, in an attempt to induce the collapse of socialist and progressive nations. The ideological and cultural infiltration is their silent, crafty and villainous method of aggression, intervention and domination….

As a reflection of Pyongyang’s doctrine, this statement is as true of North Korea’s peoples’ economy as it is irrelevant to Pyongyang’s palace economy. In North Korea, socialism is for little people. For decades, Pyongyang sustained itself on state capitalism while enforcing socialism on the expendable underclasses, wallowing in bacchanalian luxury while a million or two people starved to death. North Korea remains one of the world’s least equal societies.

KJU ski kju airport

This week’s reporting on North Korea’s big parade reenforces the evidence of widening inequality, showing us both the relative prosperity of Pyongyang (James Pearson, Reuters), but also the unabated poverty of the rural provinces (AP, Eric Talmadge), and the hardships of those who must still evade tightened border controls to work in China illegally, to support their families at home (Anna Fifield, Washington Post).

Pyongyang, by contrast, has now had decades of exposure to capitalism, but capitalism has not pacified North Korea, any more than it pacified Hitler’s Germany, Imperial Japan, Baathist Iraq, or Xi Jinping’s China. Rather, in all of these cases, state capitalism fueled each state’s military-industrial complex. The experience of the last two decades provides no basis to believe that capitalism on Pyongyang’s terms will transform North Korea into anything but a more stable, more repressive, and better-armed version of itself.

Of course, to accept what should be obvious by now, one must abandon the hope which sustained a fading generation of American and South Korean policymakers — that Pyongyang will eventually allow more than minimal economic reforms, and that trade (beyond enriching the state and perpetuating its policies of repression at home and extortion abroad) will eventually lead to broad economic, social, and political reforms. Pyongyang’s construction boom, cell phones, traffic jams, and Mickey Mouse merchandise have become the slender reed on which the Sunshine school sustains itself. But so what?

For years, I’ve challenged advocates of “engagement” with Pyongyang — as opposed to engagement with the North Korean people — to name a significant and positive change their policies have brought about. I have yet to hear an answer. The comments are open.

8 Comments

  1. “Unrestrained capitalism” is the most unfortunate phrase one could possibly use to describe the North Korean economy, IMHO. I recall that in times past, you have used a much more fitting phrase, namely “palace economy” which in my view much more precisely sums up the primitive feudal nature of the local economy. I don’t think I am too nit-picky in arguing that anything that deserves the label “capitalism” should first and foremost include at least some kind of minimally effective formal protection of property rights of capital goods – the kind of formal protection that Marx argued needs to be abolished for capitalism to end (i.e. even opponents of capitalism saw this particular aspect as its defining trait). Does North Korea have any such thing? From what I gather, whatever wealth is “owned” in NK, is owned at the mercy and whim of the dictator, i.e. by way of political cover, not by sanction of the law. The presence of profiteers and shysters and racketeers does not a capitalism make – those exist in all eras and places. (You know, mafia was all for profit, and yet hardly anyone would describe the Sicilian backwaters, their breeding ground, as an epitome of capitalism.) There is no way that North Korea and capitalism can reasonably appear side by side in the same sentence.




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  2. i agree entirely with Tomas C. The Sovs and the Red Chinese were thief nations, surviving on the open or secret theft of patents, copyrights and technology of all kinds. They’ve been succeeded by kleptocracies, of which the DPRK is the least significant. But capitalist they are not.




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  3. Nothing I’ve ever read on the subject of North Korea has so succinctly summed up the entire experience of the last 60 years.

    This is the kind of crystal clarity that needs to be read in Berkeley and every cultural studies class.




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  4. North Korea manages to waste their most talented people. As do all dictatorships. Another reason they fail to improve their living conditions.
    They remain the world’s largest open prison, followed by Gaza and the West Bank.




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